Jim Crace Crace, Jim (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Jim Crace 1946–-

British short story writer, novelist, and journalist.

The following entry presents an overview of Crace's short fiction career through 2002.

Crace is viewed as one of the more original and admired fiction writers in England. His two short fiction collections, Continent (1986) and The Devil's Larder (2000), are noted for their imaginative premises and settings and spare, straightforward language.

Biographical Information

On March 1, 1946, Crace was born in Brocket Hall, Lemsford, Herefordshire, England. He grew up in north London and attended the Birmingham College of Commerce (now the University of Central England). In 1968 he received a B.A. from the University of London. After graduation he volunteered overseas, initially as a producer and writer for the Sudanese Educational Television in Khartoum, then as an English instructor in Botswana. In 1970 he returned to England and began his career as a radio and print journalist. During the 1970s he began to write fiction and published three short stories in The New Review. The third of these stories, “Cross-Country,” appeared in the magazine in April 1976; it also became the beginning of his first collection of short stories, Continent. The book, considered by some reviewers to be a novel, received several awards, including the Whitbread Award for first novel, the David Higham Prize for Fiction, and the Guardian Fiction Prize. Crace lives with his family in Birmingham, England, and continues to publish fiction and articles for periodicals and newspapers.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Crace's reputation as a short fiction writer is based on his two collections of short stories, Continent and The Devil's Larder. Classified by some critics as a novel, Continent is a collection of seven interrelated stories set on an imaginary continent modeled after the Third World. The stories chronicle the technological, political, and cultural development of the region, focusing on the tension of the old, traditional ways being replaced by technology or being exploited by foreigners. For example, “Sins and Virtues” explores the dilemma of a village calligrapher whose obscure art suddenly becomes fashionable in the West. Pressured by his government into working harder and faster, the calligrapher turns to forgery and deception to fulfill expectations. In “Electricity,” electricity is introduced to a small, backward town with tragicomic results. Crace's next collection, The Devil's Larder, is comprised of sixty-four untitled stories. The pieces are very short—ranging from a single paragraph to ten pages long—and are thematically connected by the role of food and sensual gratification in people's lives.

Critical Reception

Crace's work has garnered significant critical attention. Some critics laud his imagination and find his stories to be provocative, clever, and insightful. Reviewers also praise his language in both collections as lucid and lyrical. Detractors contend that his stories are detached, monotonous, and too carefully crafted. Moreover, they note the lack of depth and energy in his stories. Yet despite these negative assessments, Crace is regarded as one of England's most highly esteemed contemporary authors. Several critics have detected the influence of Italo Calvino, J. M. Coetzee, and Jorge Luis Borges in Crace's short stories.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Continent 1986

The Devil's Larder 2000

The Gift of Stones (novel) 1988

Arcadia (novel) 1991

Signals of Distress (novel) 1994

Quarantine (novel) 1997

Being Dead (novel) 1999

Colin Greenland (review date 10 October 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Greenland, Colin. “Change of Life.” New Statesman 112, no. 2898 (10 October 1986): 28-9.

[In the following excerpt, Greenland offers a mixed review of Continent.]

Jim Crace steps aside from history and geography in Continent, a book of seven stories from an imaginary and unnamed seventh continent (counting Eurasia, I suppose, as one). The world is our own, now; most of the stories centre on conflicts between local traditions actual and assumed, and invasive modernity from Europe and America. An ageing calligrapher is subjected to the depredations of ignorant and extravagant collectors; a sophisticated young biologist prepares to inherit his father's business, lucratively exploiting rural superstition; a Canadian visitor, a jogger, is made to run a race against the finest horseman in the valley for the approval of the old men. Crace's cool and measured diction, his evocative restraint, his keen sense of life and death invisibly and inflexibly awarded, all invite complimentary comparison with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Austerely perfect as his stories are, I was left wishing only that these invented regions might have been less familiar, less directly analogous by turns to Colombia and Greece and Morocco.

Publisher's Weekly (review date 13 February 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Continent, by Jim Crace. Publisher's Weekly 231 (13 February 1987): 81-2.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic praises the imagination and “unfaltering authority” of the stories in Continent.]

Crace's continent is mainly dry and under-developed, peopled by bureaucrats and country folk whose conflicting values give these loosely connected chapters their essential tension. In “Electricity,” the wiring of a small village pits superstition and ancient innocence against technology and progress, leaving nothing much changed in the end. The nearly perfect “In Heat,” featuring a forest tribe whose women conceive at only one time of year, centers on the effect of their discovery by a biologist doing field work—all told in the voice of his daughter, who late in her life learns a truth about her origin. A village scribe in “Sins and Virtues” withstands cultural exploitation, remaining true to himself and his art in the face of profit and greed. Crace's imagination is fabulous, conjuring landscapes—urban and rural—that are concrete, credible and mythic at once. It's a topography of the interior, where primitive magical explanations of phenomena are as adequate (and inadequate) as those of progress and technology. Distinguished by unfaltering authority and range of voice, Crace's novel [Continent] has been awarded the Whitbread and the David Higham prizes in England. This is stunningly powerful, visionary writing.

Brian Stonehill (review date 12 April 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Stonehill, Brian. Review of Continent, by Jim Crace. Los Angeles Times Book Review (12 April 1987): 153.

[In the following favorable assessment of Continent, Stonehill lauds Crace's lively and graceful language.]

Here are seven related short stories that arrive on our shores already wreathed in praise. Jim Crace's Continent won England's Whitbread Prize for the best first “novel” of 1986, and the David Higham Prize for the year's best first work of fiction. Continent seems more strangely native to our New World, though, than to the Old.

The stories take place, for one thing, in an exotic locale that seems to be Latin American, although the fanciful names suggest some generic Third World. And Crace dips his pen in an unstable mixture of fiction and fact, a blend made popular south of the border by the “magical realists” of the Latin American “boom.”

In “Cross Country,” for instance, a visiting Canadian schoolteacher, who amuses the villagers by his jogging, is suddenly pitted in a dramatic footrace against a native on horseback. Government soldiers in another story whisk an innocent man off the street into prison—where he succeeds in taking ingenious revenge. History and fantasy intertwine playfully here, and frighteningly. Like the mythical village of Macondo in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's fiction, this Continent is another “intricate stew of truths and mirages,” and similarly captivating.

Crace writes gracefully: “A fistful of grit he scattered in the grass so that it fell among the leaf joints like sleet.” And he tells a good story. An aged calligrapher of the dying language Siddilic discovers that his work, pried loose from storefronts by visiting foreigners, is selling for high prices in America, especially in Chicago. A government minister orders the calligrapher to produce a vast amount of new work, to be sold abroad by the government. So the poor man, exhausted, is compelled to buy local forgeries of his work and pass them on as his own.

Crace's language is alive, a distinctive voice, an engaging character in itself. Life not only is the subject of, but is subject to, his artful words. We welcome his newfound Continent to our maps.

Lowry Pei (review date August 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Pei, Lowry. Review of Continent, by Jim Crace. Boston Review 12, no. 4 (August 1987): 30-1.

[In the following review, Pei surveys the major themes of Continent.]

Jim Crace's Continent is an artful bulletin from a part of the world, and a state of human awareness, that we cannot afford to ignore. It is a thin book, originally published in England, that comes with enough praise written on its back to sink a larger one. The writers quoted on its dust jacket seem to have a hard time defining what they obviously admire; Crace is compared to no less than five different authors in an effort to capture the essence of his fiction.


(The entire section is 798 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 August 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Devil's Larder, by Jim Crace. Kirkus Reviews 69, no. 16 (15 August 2001): 1144.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic deems the stories in The Devil's Larder as beguiling and worthwhile.]

The award-winning British author of such inventive and memorable fiction as Quarantine (1997) and Being Dead (2000) enters new territory with this beguiling collection [The Devil's Larder] of 64 very short stories about what may as well be called the metaphysics of food.

Crace prefaces these untitled pieces with a tantalizing pseudo-biblical epigraph including the orotund declaration, “Nor is there honey in the devil's larder.” Then he treats us to freely ranging anecdotes (some a single paragraph, none more than a half-dozen pages) that dramatize with terse wit the exigencies of appetite and custom as expressed in both seemingly realistic and expressly parabolic terms. Several take the form of genetic character contrast: a woman who finds love in middle age simultaneously develops the healthy appetite denied the withdrawn younger woman listening to her story; a private club's dining-room manager punishes his staff for the same breaches of etiquette he finds himself compulsively committing; and a truculent, self-denying health faddist who preached that “Migraines are occasioned by modem life” is remembered by the jaded voluptuary who long outlives her. Echoes of Kafka, Borges, Cortazar, and the Kosinski of Steps are heard in such shapely fables as the tale of a celebrated restaurant that scorns to serve food whose patrons nevertheless pay handsomely to soak up its unique ambience (“It celebrated emptiness in an otherwise sated world”); a vision of God observing innocents plucking bitter crab apples from a “forbidden” tree; and an erotic roundelay in which dining companions play “Strip Fondue,” impulsively subjecting themselves to “the scorching treachery of cheese.” The “lessons” of these sophisticated stories might have been devised by an epicurean Aesop who wisely balances the pleasures of seizing the day with a resigned understanding of the vanity and evanescence of sensual gratification.

As one Crace character puts it, “Life is uncertain. Eat the pudding first.” Readers would be well advised not to bypass a morsel of this sumptuous fictional feast.

Bee Wilson (review date 22 August 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilson, Bee. “Not in the Very Best of Taste.” The Times (London) (22 August 2001): 12.

[In the following review, Wilson finds The Devil's Larder to be a clever, dark, and disturbing compilation of stories.]

Whenever a new book or film about food comes out, which happens with gluttonous frequency now, reviewers fall upon it as if it were not a work of art but a large and agreeable piece of cake. Delicious! Delectable! Devour this! they clamour. All the ingredients for a mouth-watering read! This satisfies the egos of both author and critic. It not only sells books, it virtually guarantees that the review will appear on the dustjacket.


(The entire section is 587 words.)

Christopher Tayler (review date 7 September 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Tayler, Christopher. “Perfect Monday Soup.” Times Literary Supplement (7 September 2001): 8.

[In the following positive review of The Devil's Larder, Tayler considers the unique and imaginative nature of Crace's short fiction.]

Despite prizes, admiring reviews, respectable sales and translations into twenty languages, Jim Crace has somehow managed to reach his present eminence without losing a vague outsider status. Fashion, satire, brand names, knowingness, New York, London, fancy first-person prose—none of these plays much of a part in any of Crace's books. At least three are historical novels of sorts, but none of them discovers a redemptive...

(The entire section is 1226 words.)

Publisher's Weekly (review date 10 September 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Devil's Larder, by Jim Crace. Publisher's Weekly 248 (10 September 2001): 60.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic finds the stories in The Devil's Larder to be “simple, enjoyable, but lacking in depth.”]

The line between nature and culture, according to Levi-Strauss, runs through our kitchens—between the raw and the cooked. In Crace's book of 64 food fables [The Devil's Larder], the raw and the cooked are sequenced in sometimes bizarre ways: a woman remembers her mother's version of “soup stone,” its magic ingredient a stone found on the seashore; a famous restaurant in an isolated Third World locale...

(The entire section is 271 words.)

Barbara Hoffert (review date 15 September 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hoffert, Barbara. Review of The Devil's Larder, by Jim Crace. Library Journal 126, no. 15 (15 September 2001): 115.

[In the following review, Hoffert provides a favorable assessment of The Devil's Larder.]

As evidenced by Being Dead, his National Book Critics Circle award winner, Crace is adept at creating unexpected worlds. In this tasty little collection [The Devil's Larder], he has created many—64, to be exact. From the grandmother who tears off a bit of dough “for the angel” to the adventurers who risk a tiresome, slightly surreal hike to dine at an inexplicably famous restaurant to the manager who devises an ultimately...

(The entire section is 204 words.)

D. J. Taylor (review date 15 September 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Taylor, D. J. “A Light Collation.” Spectator 287, no. 9032 (15 September 2001): 39-40.

[In the following mixed review, Taylor examines the role of food in The Devil's Larder.]

Whatever else may be said of Jim Crace's novels, he does at least have the merit of never writing the same book twice. Quarantine (1997), the last but one, featured Our Lord in the course of his 40-day sojourn in the wilderness. Being Dead (1999), its successor, starred a couple of corpses briskly decomposing on some out-of-the-way sand-dune. God and Death having been disposed of, along comes The Devil's Larder, which is about the eternally fashionable subject of...

(The entire section is 606 words.)

Frank Caso (review date 15 October 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Caso, Frank. Review of The Devil's Larder, by Jim Crace. Booklist 98, no. 4 (15 October 2001): 381.

[In the following positive review, Caso comments on the role of food in The Devil's Larder.]

Whenever Crace's imagination alights on a topic, the reader is rewarded with a gem of a book, [The Devil's Larder] and this time the topic, broadly speaking, is food. Crace explores the complexities of human nature, as well as its foibles, in 64 short fiction pieces (many of them short-shorts, actually) that cover the full gastronomic range, from soup to nuts. The stories are set in a fictional coastal town and the surrounding countryside, wherein we find...

(The entire section is 199 words.)

Michael Dirda (review date 21 October 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Dirda, Michael. Review of The Devil's Larder, by Jim Crace. Book World—The Washington Post (21 October 2001): T15.

[In the following review, Dirda finds the stories in The Devil's Larder to be over-refined and unsatisfying.]

Jim Crace may not be as well known as Martin Amis or A. S. Byatt, but he is one of Britain's most original and admired writers. His novel Quarantine—about Christ in the desert—was honored as the Whitbread Novel of the Year (1997); Being Dead—which reviews a couple's past life after they have been murdered and their bodies lie decomposing—received the National Book Critics Circle's award (2000)....

(The entire section is 785 words.)

Ian Sansom (review date 15 November 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Sansom, Ian. “Smorgasbits.” London Review of Books 23, no. 22 (15 November 2001): 13-14.

[In the following review, Sansom considers the defining characteristics of Crace's fiction and describes The Devil's Larder as “a book of insights.”]

According to Henry James, reviewing John Cross's life of George Eliot,

the creations which brought her renown were of the incalculable kind, shaped themselves in mystery, in some intellectual back-shop or secret crucible, and were as little as possible implied in the aspect of her life. There is nothing more singular or striking in Mr Cross's volumes than the absence of any...

(The entire section is 2947 words.)

Dale Peck (review date 31 December 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Peck, Dale. “The Devil You Know.” The New Republic (31 December 2001): 38-41.

[In the following negative review of The Devil's Larder, Peck traces Crace's literary development and denigrates his short fiction as insipid, one-dimensional, and merely “imitations of stories.”]

The difference between curiosity and promiscuity is much the same for writers as it is for lovers. The first is a good thing, the second bad, the line between the two rather blurry. At what point is inquisitiveness revealed to be a wandering eye, an inability to focus or to commit?

Over the past fifteen years, the British novelist Jim Crace has wooed an...

(The entire section is 5006 words.)

Paul Maliszewski (review date spring 2002)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Maliszewski, Paul. Review of The Devil's Larder, by Jim Crace. Review of Contemporary Fiction 22, no. 1 (spring 2002): 128.

[In the following review, Maliszewski offers a favorable assessment of The Devil's Larder.]

The Devil's Larder is a collection of sixty-four very short stories—the longest several pages, the shortest just two words—having to do with cooking and eating all sorts of food, from extravagant dishes to ordinary cans. Crace, the author of six novels, including Quarantine and Being Dead, sets his stories in an unnamed village. Many of the stories arise from the village's collective identity as a culturally distinct...

(The entire section is 328 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Butler, Robert Olen. “Let There Be Shining Mangoes.” New York Times Book Review (28 June 1987): 30.

Laudatory assessment of Continent.

Caso, Frank. Review of The Devil's Larder, by Jim Crace. Booklist 98, no. 4 (15 October 2001): 381.

Praises the stories in The Devil's Larder as complex and imaginative.

Phillips, Adam. “Eat This Book.” New York Times Book Review (21 October 2001): 7.

Deems The Devil's Larder an “extraordinary book.”

Reynolds, Susan Salter. “Discoveries.” Los Angeles Times Book...

(The entire section is 147 words.)